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Whether you’ve been studying for a while or are just getting started, let’s use the New Year as an opportunity to establish or renew your commitment to getting your desired GMAT score.
In the first half of this 2-part series, we’ll talk about how to get started—or re-started—on your GMAT prep. In the second half, we’ll talk about how to learn.
Wherever you are in your study, you need a plan, and the first important thing to learn is that no plan is static. No plan exists that says, “Here’s what you’ll do from Day 1 right up until Test Day.” (No good plan, at least!)
Most people can start off in very similar ways, but at some point down the road, you’re going to have to customize based on your own needs. We’ll talk more about that in the second installment of this series.
Start keeping a GMAT journal. Get a notebook, open up a file on your computer, or start a blog (though I’d recommend making it a private blog, with an audience of just you). Write something in your GMAT Journal every day.* Don’t write everything, but do write:
(1) What you did that day*
(2) The two or three most important things you learned (such as “how do I know when to cut myself off on a Quant problem?”)
(3) One or two things you want to review at a later date (such as “review modifier rules in 2 weeks.”)
*Note that, on some days, you’ll write “Relaxed / took my earned GMAT break.” Don’t burn yourself out!
1) Set Your Goal
(Note: this section is NOT just for new students—keep reading even if you’ve been studying for a while or already know your goal GMAT score!)
You need to know your current GMAT score and the score level that will make you competitive at the schools to which you plan to apply. These two numbers will give you an idea of how much improvement you will need and may affect your prep plans, including the length of time you plan to spend and whether you work on your own.
If you haven’t already (within the past 4-ish weeks), take a practice CAT in conditions that simulate the actual exam as much as possible. Do the essay and IR sections. The mental effort it takes to do these sections can affect your performance on Quant and Verbal, so don’t skip them because you don’t care about the IR and essay scores. Take two 8-minute breaks, one after IR and one after the Quantitative section. Don’t answer the phone, don’t eat or drink except during the breaks, and so on—basically make it as close to the real test as you can.
Many prep companies offer practice exams, so you have plenty of choices, but you do need to make sure that the exam does several things. First, the Quant and Verbal sections should be adaptive, just like the real test. Second, the test should record the time you spend on each individual question—timing is a major factor on the GMAT. Third, it should offer score reports that give you tons of data on your strengths and weaknesses.
GMATPrep® exams (from the makers of the real test) are great in general but do not give you the 2nd and 3rd items on this list, so don’t use a GMATPrep CAT for this exercise. Save GMATPrep for closer to the time you plan to take the real test.
Next, go to the websites of the schools to which you want to apply (or may want to apply) and find the GMAT statistics for the most recent admitted students.
Record your practice GMAT score and the school statistics in your journal. As a general rule, your GMAT score is a “plus” for you if you are at or above the median for a given school, so ideally your goal score should be at or above the median for your schools.
How far are you from your goal? The further you are or the higher your goal GMAT score is, the longer you will likely need to prep for the exam. Most people prep for between 2.5 and 4 months (though obviously the length of time can vary). It’s reasonable, though, to aim for a minimum of 2 months unless you don’t need very much improvement at all.
2) Diagnose Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Next, use your test results to figure out your strengths and weaknesses in terms of both content and timing. You can use this article to help analyze a Manhattan Prep CAT. Take notes on paper, then summarize your analysis in your journal. (Note: analysis is not the same thing as data. The data tells you what happened. Your analysis tells you why you think it happened and what you plan to do about it in the future. Start by summarizing the data, but don’t forget to take the next step and analyze.)
Also, what is your optimal learning style? Think back to undergrad. Did you do best when you had a small classroom of comrades with whom you shared the adventures of learning? Or did you excel when you worked on your own, or possibly met individually with your professor or TA? At work today, does it energize you to work with a group or do you focus better via one-on-one interactions? Do you prefer to do most of your work on your own or with others?
The answers to those questions will help you determine whether to study on your own, find other students with whom to study, take an organized class, or find a private tutor. There’s no one right way—there’s only the best way for you.
3) Plan Your Schedule
Now that you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can use that info to help determine a rough timeframe. The ideal is to work without an external deadline (e.g., a school application deadline). You set a general timeframe / deadline for yourself and get started, but you’re able to take more time if needed, since you don’t absolutely have to take the test by a certain date.
If you are working against a deadline, though, then you have to plan more carefully. Be aware that you may also have to decide, at some point, to lower your goal GMAT score in order to take the test by a certain date.
Most people initially underestimate the amount of time they’ll need to study. Plus, we’re talking about a time period of 2 months or longer; it’s very unlikely that you can pick an exact date (or even an exact week) so far ahead of time. If you have the luxury of time, set yourself a general timeframe, but start to think about specific test dates only when your practice CAT scores start to get into the range you want.
Here’s how to set your overall timeframe.
Primary Study Period.
You’ll set a rough amount of time that you’re likely going to need for primary studying (that is, the time you take to master the material, not including a comprehensive final review). Be aware that this rough timeframe is likely to change as you see how fast you make progress.
For most people, primary study will take 8 to 16 weeks, though it may be a bit shorter if you’ve taken the test before and you’re not aiming for a significant (> 50 points) improvement. If, on the other hand, you’re starting from scratch and you want an extra-high improvement (>150 points), or you have a crazy schedule and can’t study very much / often, you may need more than 16 weeks. Also, if you take a class, your primary study will be at least the length of the class plus some additional time.
You will also need to set aside time for review after you finish your primary study and before you take the test. Most people spend 2 to 6 weeks on a comprehensive review after they finish their primary study. If you’re going to do this in 2 weeks, you’ll need to be able to spend at minimum 10 hours per week. Pick a rough target based on what you know of your schedule for now but, again, be aware that this could change in the future.
You also need to factor in two other things that will affect your study timeframe:
You may not get the GMAT score that you want—occasionally, people even get sick right in the testing room. It’s smart to leave time to take the test a second time, if necessary. You are only allowed to take the GMAT once in a 31-day period (and 5 times a year), so plan this “buffer” time into your prep schedule.
You may also want to include a couple of extra weeks of study time as an additional buffer, just in case. Work gets busy, people get sick, we procrastinate…things happen.
You will, of course, have to meet the application deadlines of your selected schools. If you can plan ahead, it’s preferable to get the test out of the way well before you have to start filling out the applications themselves. (Keep in mind that your GMAT score is valid for 5 years, so you can get started very early!)
4) Gather Your Resources
There are tons of resources available to help you get ready for the GMAT. If you take a course or work with some structured program, the materials should already be determined for you. Otherwise, you’ll have to figure out what works best for you.
In general, there are three major categories of necessary resources:
a. Test content and methodology
These materials will teach you the what and the how: what’s on the test and how to take the test. These materials will come from a test prep company (this is what test prep companies do!). You may decide to choose different materials from different companies, but I do recommend sticking with “sets” of materials whenever possible. For example, if you’re going to use the algebra study materials from one company, it’s best to use that company’s Quant materials in general. Likewise on Verbal.
2. Practice questions
As you’re studying the material tested on the exam and how to handle the different types of GMAT questions, you’ll also need to test yourself on GMAT-format problems. The best practice questions are the officially-released past test questions from GMAC (the makers of the GMAT). The latest three books (as of the time this article was published) are the Official Guide 13th Edition, the Verbal Review 2nd Edition, and the Quantitative Review 2nd Edition. The most recent online release is GMAT Prep 2.0 (including 2 free practice tests and some additional paid resources) and there’s also GMAT Focus (for Quant only).
3. Practice tests
You’ll want a mix of practice tests: GMATPrep (from the real makers of the test) and some tests from a test prep company. The GMATPrep test is the closest to the real thing, but doesn’t offer explanations or analysis of your results. A test prep company’s CAT will give you explanations and analysis.
What’s next? Join us Friday for the second half of the series to learn how to learn! 📝
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Stacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests. Check out Stacey’s upcoming GMAT courses here.